Rail has become a series of contradictions. Rail passenger numbers continue to increase but customer satisfaction has declined significantly on several lines. Government constantly claims to be making the largest investments since the Victorian era but the experience of many travellers is one of unexplained delay for a service they think is too expensive. The Government should take action. Now is the time to look at radical reform. If not a sector in crisis, rail is at least teetering on the edge of one. The recent apparent resolution of the industrial dispute on Southern is at best partial, as it doesn’t include the RMT, and at worst a fig leaf covering other issues on the network. The issue of DOO is being championed by Government but not always very publicly. Even if a resolution is found on Southern, the matter will simply move to other parts of the network including Merseyrail.
Network Rail is obviously working hard to sort the infrastructure challenges. Whilst the challenge of high-profile overruns seem to have been resolved, smaller ones that have a direct impact on the passenger experience continue.
The Government is, according to the West Coast Partnership Prospectus talking of a ‘new approach’, ‘new thinking’, ‘new ideas’, a ‘new benchmark in rail travel’ and several other ‘news’. The prospects is heavy on what the Government wants of the bidder but light on how a bidder, let alone a potential new market entrant, might benefit from involvement.
But which high-flying organisation is going to put its reputation at risk and get involved in the current rail system? Their room for manoeuvre is limited, they would have little say over the infrastructure and all for, comparatively, small rewards but large risk. This risk is not just regulatory but high profile, political and linked directly to consumer actions.
The general feeling of the public is that the railways need to be renationalised. This will obviously not be the preferred model for the Conservative Government so it is on the back foot. It appears to have little choice but to consider radical options.
There has been talk about merging franchises to recreate Network South East. That may have merit but will that do any more than simply shift the deck chairs around?
Radical ideas have been put forward in the past. The history is Government is littered with independent reports, often hard-hitting and radical, that then sit on a Minister’s shelf and gather dust. Worse still a report is commissioned by one Minister who is then replaced with a less than enthusiastic successor.
There also remains a lack of agreement about what the position of rail is in the whole devolution agenda. Whilst Rail North and now Transport for the North are ensuring local involvement in franchises, the lack of agreement for London appears to talk more of the politics than the policy.
The establishment of the five year settlement for rail spending was a huge step forward and one that is now being utilised for roads as well. But it is now considered by some to be a dead hand where there is clarity for one five year period but no further into the future. This is not good for business planning especially as we approach Brexit. The ‘B’ word is not often mentioned in the context of rail but its potential effects are as meaningful here as for other parts of the economy. Not just in terms of revenue for franchises but also for business planning and resource allocation.
The National Infrastructure Commission may help plan the future for bigger schemes but not the sort of much-needed improvements that Network Rail deliver on ‘smaller’ schemes. Without greater certainty around the market, firms will not keep people on their books or in this country. That, in turn, impacts on costs.
Structures should not remain in aspic. Instead, the reform should be constant and evolutionary. Instead, by simply stopping after every change is made, Government has forced itself into revolutions. They may have no appetite for radical reform but passengers seem eager for change. Plus if the Government wants new entrants into the market then change is definitely needed. Relying on clichés such as ‘partnership working’ will not be enough to secure real change.
Some of this means strong Ministers standing up and no longer simply managing the network but instead being prepared to take, potentially challenging, political decisions.
So if the Government really does wish to change the way in which rail is delivered and get the public back on board then it needs to find some radical zeal. And convince No 10 whilst they are at it as well.
Published in Transport Times, March 2017